NASCAR: Three Drivers to watch in Sunday’s Goodyear 400

Alex Bowman, NASCAR

For the first time in seven, the NASCAR Cup Series makes a stop at Darlington Speedway for a scheduled spring race. The series went there twice last spring when NASCAR returned from their COVID-19 pause, but the events weren’t on the original schedule.

Sunday’s event is set for 293 laps and 400.2 miles around the 1.366-mile circuit. Brad Keselowski will lead the field to green while last week’s winner Kyle Busch will roll off third. Here are three drivers to watch in the Goodyear 400.

Kevin Harvick (+700)

Not many drivers have been able to tame the “Lady in Black”, but Kevin Harvick has done so three times in the Cup Series. He’s won two of the three races at the track last season, including the first race back from the pandemic. Harvick has 15 top-10s in 26 starts at Darlington, including 11 top-5s.

Through 11 races, Harvick sits 8th in the Cup Series standings despite being winless thus far. He has 4 top-5s and 8 top-10s, also earning many stage points. Sunday could finally be the day Harvick scores his first win of 2021, and he has a good chance to do so.

Erik Jones (+8000)

In less than stellar equipment, Erik Jones has had an up-and-down season. He’s 27th in the standings 2 top-10s in 11 starts and spent time in contention a few weeks ago at Talladega.

Jones has an opportunity to better his points position with a strong finish at Darlington. He’s finished in the top-10 in each of his six starts at the track, including a victory in 2019. His average finish is a stellar 5.2. Be sure to look out for Jones this weekend in the Goodyear 400.

Tyler Reddick (+4000)

Tyler Reddick has had a sneaky good 2021 season in improved Richard Childress Racing equipment. He’s finished in the top-10 in four of his last five races and currently sits in 18th place in the points standings.

Tracks like Darlington and Homestead-Miami where cars kind of just slide around the corners are Reddick’s best. He finished in the top-10 once last season in the Cup Series and also has a pair of top-5s in the Xfinity Series. Don’t be surprised to see Tyler Reddick contend on Sunday and potentially steal a win.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Richard Petty Motorsports

After ending his Joe Gibbs tenure on a strong note, Erik Jones is ready to reboot his NASCAR Cup Series career in the iconic No. 43.

2021 Richard Petty Motorsports Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Erik Jones 43 Jerry Baxter Armor All/RP Funding/US Air Force/McDonald’s


What is now known as RPM began as championship crew chief Ray Evernham’s race team in 2001. The team was originally a merger of three formerly successful teams (Evernham Motorsports, Petty Enterprises, Robert Yates Racing) that had seen their prosperous times end. Today, Richard “The King ” Petty continues to run the operation alongside New York-based millionaire Andrew Murstein. It has been a single-car team since 2016, fielding Petty’s iconic No. 43 car, which was first run by Petty in 1959. After his retirement in 1992, Petty continued to run his team in an ownership role.

Ever since Petty earned his record 200th and final Cup Series win in Daytona’s summer event in 1984 (the first NASCAR race with a sitting U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, in attendance), the No. 43 has endured some hard times, despite some talented names behind the wheel. Bubba Wallace was the most recent entrant, running the past three full seasons after prior occupants included John Andretti, former Cup champion Bobby Labonte, and Aric Almirola. The 43 last went to victory lane in 2014, when Almirola won a rain-shortened race at Daytona. RPM’s last victory in a race that went the distance was when Andretti won at Martinsville in 1999. With Wallace moving on to new endeavors with Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, Jones comes over after four seasons as Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing.

2020 in Review

With Wallace behind the wheel, the 43 car finished 22nd in the final 2020 standings, its best final posting since Almirola came home 17th in 2015. His best finish was a fifth in, once again, the Daytona summer event.

As for Jones, things failed to pan out in Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota after strong runs at both the Xfinity and Truck levels (winning the 2015 title at the latter level). He failed to win a race after win one in both 2018 and 2019 and his 13 top tens were his worst tally since entering full-time Cup racing in 2017. Despite his regular season struggles, Jones built momentum in the early stages of the playoffs. Over the first six postseason races, Jones earned four finishes amongst the top quartet, including a runner-up tally at Talladega. It allowed him to take 17th place in the final standings, best amongst the non-playoff drivers. He did take home the win at the Busch Clash, the season-opening exhibition at Daytona.

Meet the Driver

Erik Jones

Experience: 5th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: summer Darlington, 2019)
2020 finish: 17th
Best standings finish: 15th (2018)

Jones knows what it’s like to win on NASCAR’s national levels, having won a pair at the Cup level and 16 at the Xfinity and Truck Series. Though things didn’t work out in Gibbs equipment, Jones is confident he can take lessons from his days in the 20 into his new role at RPM.

“You just have to take in the opportunity that it was, what that team did to be successful and try to move on from that and learn from that,” Jones said this week. “A lot of it has just been trying to figure out, on my end, what I can bring to the table over at RPM to try to continue to make them better. A lot of that is just me being really in the trenches with those guys. I feel like I’ve spent quite a bit of time at the shop and we’ve already been on the simulator quite a bit, just trying to get through stuff and learn what I want in a race car.”

One adjustment for Jones will be moving from the elite shop at Gibbs to the single-car setup at RPM. He’s confident that a combination of his own talents and the strides RPM has made over the past few seasons will lead to a successful merger.

“RPM has been doing a lot over the last few years to really strengthen their organization and I think it’s showing in performance, too,” Jones noted. “The trend is going in the right direction and, obviously, we want to keep it going that way this year, keep going to a better points finish, and continue to get more and more competitive on-track. Overall, I think there’s a great opportunity.”


Jones believes that RPM is capable of fielding a top 20 car, a title it hasn’t held since Almirola’s aforementioned 2015 efforts. But Jones might be ready to swipe a playoff spot at Daytona or Talladega. The former was the site of his first victory in 2018 and he earned top-five finishes in each visit to Alabama. With both Jones and Petty looking to reintroduce themselves to victory lane, they’re sure to be one of the most intriguing stories of opening events at the World Center of Racing. Jones will first look to defend his Clash title on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET, FS1), though this edition will be held on the track’s road course.

Geoff Magliocchettis is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Erik Jones ready for a Richard Petty reset

Bid farewell from Joe Gibbs Racing, Erik Jones is ready to reboot his NASCAR Cup Series career in the iconic No. 43 car.

Erik Jones’ NASCAR name has been constantly mentioned alongside the sport’s most victorious characters. He has raced alongside Kyle Busch and 2020 Cup Series champion Chase Elliott in the famed Snowball Derby short track event, winning two of them. His memorable championship trek during the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series was traversed in a truck owned by Busch. A debut season on the premier Cup Series level in 2017 was run at Furniture Row Racing, where he raced alongside that season’s ultimate winner: Martin Truex Jr. In the year after, he succeeded Matt Kenseth in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota…which previously hosted a pair of titles from Tony Stewart.

Now, with Jones seeking to hit the reset button on his Cup career, he’s working with arguably the most memorable name in the history of auto racing: Richard Petty.

Jones, 24, is set to be the driver of Petty’s iconic No. 43 car, a vehicle owned and operated by the seven-time champion and New York-based businessman Andrew M. Murstein. The protege of Richard Petty Motorsports was called upon to take the ride over in October with Bubba Wallace heading over to a new team funded by Michael Jordan and Jones’ race day competitor Denny Hamlin.

“It’s a little bit hard to totally grasp the impact that Richard Petty has had on NASCAR and the No. 43 itself,” Jones remarked in a meeting with reporters this week. “I never got to see The King race, so that’s kind of an interesting thing I think for me. But I know obviously his impact on the sport, what he means to NASCAR and what he means to NASCAR fans. Growing up, my grandmother was and still is a huge Richard Petty fan and there’s a lot of people that are really excited to see me in that car from back home.”

“It’s been hard to wrap my head around that a little bit and really think about all the history in that car and what it’s meant to the sport. But I hope I can go out and do it and its fans proud. I know there’s a lot of fans of that car, just from back when Richard was driving it himself, so hopefully, we can go out and make those fans happy.”

Jones and Petty will be partners in rebooting as NASCAR inches toward the 2021 Cup Series season. Once seen as one of NASCAR’s most intriguing prospects, Jones’ Cup Series career hit a bit of a roadblock last season, which wound up being his last in the No. 20 machine.

Things started off pleasant enough, as Jones won the season-opening exhibition known as the Busch Clash a week before the Daytona 500, leading only a single lap as one of six drivers to finish the wreck-filled race. But the regular season wound up being a struggle, as Jones was the only Gibbs driver to miss out on the Cup Series postseason. He also failed to add to his win total, leading JGR to end a collaboration that dated back to 2012. Christopher Bell will serve as the new driver of the No. 20, joining an all-star unit that includes Hamlin, Busch, and Truex Jr.

Jones will now join an RPM team struggling to recapture its glory days. The No. 43 car played host to all but eight of Petty’s record 200 victories on the Cup circuit, but hasn’t visited victory lane since July 2014, when Aric Almirola won a Daytona summer race shortened by rain. Wallace’s 22nd-place posting in 2020’s final standings was the first time that an RPM driver finished in the top 25 of the standings since Almirola’s finish in 17th five years prior.

Despite the relative downgrade, Jones is very enthusiastic about what he can accomplish at RPM. In some ways, he views the transfer from the massive operation at JGR to RPM’s single-car setting as having its share of benefits. It has allowed Jones to experience flashbacks to his days as a budding short track racer in his home state of Michigan.

“It just kind of brings me back to short track racing to me more than anything, what I grew up doing in Late Models and stuff there. Obviously, that was my family team, so it was really just me, my dad, we had a crew chief a couple of times and that was it,” Jones remarked of the change. “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s nice to just be able to walk into the shop and right off the bat get to say ‘hi’ to everybody and there’s nowhere to walk around all day trying to get to see everybody that you need to see. So, I’ve enjoyed it. The communication is really easy.”

Of course, the most attractive aspect of a Petty collaboration is the chance to talk shop with The King himself. Jones was incredibly impressed by and enjoyed the fact that, even in his advanced age, the 83-year-old Petty remains an active prescience in the RPM garage as the offseason continues.

“It’s really neat for me to see how in-tune he is with everything that’s going on,” he said. “You don’t really know until you spend time with somebody how much they’re really involved and what they’re doing. With The King, with his team, he’s all in. So, it’s been really neat to see and just get some advice from him right off the bat about dealing with sponsors, dealing with fans, and things he’s done over his time in the sport to really nurture those relationships and build strong relationships with sponsors and fans.”

“I’ve definitely enjoyed the time I’ve gotten to talk to him so far. For me, I’m looking forward to continuing that through the year and just being able to go to him, ask questions and get advice about something he’s been around his whole life. And most of the time the sport has been around itself, he’s been involved too. I’m excited to grow that relationship and get to chat with him about racing and obviously hope to make him proud on the track.”

If anything, Jones was able to create some strong momentum at the end of the 2020 season with a respectable output that he reached from outside the postseason limits. He was the best-finishing non-playoff driver in 17th place, earning four top-five postings over the concluding ten races (including a runner-up showing at Talladega in October).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Erik Jones to replace Bubba Wallace at Richard Petty Motorsports


Richard Petty Motorsports has announced that Erik Jones will be replacing Bubba Wallace in 2021, driving the iconic No. 43 car.

Jones, 24, is currently with Joe Gibbs Racing, but the organization announced on August 10th that Christopher Bell would be taking his ride. Bell spent 2018 and 2019 under Gibbs in the Xfinity series, and is driving for Leavine Family Racing in 2020. His announcement to Gibbs in 2021 came after Leavine Family Racing announced they were ceasing operations after this season.

After spending his rookie season with Furniture Row Racing in 2017, Jones filled Matt Kenseth’s seat in the No. 20 car in 2018. Jones has picked up two wins in three seasons for Gibbs, finishing in the top-10 48 times and finishing in the top-five 28 times.

In four full-time Cup Series seasons, Jones has finished in the top-20 in points in all four seasons while making the playoffs twice. He failed to advance to the round of 12 both times that he made it.

Jones will be taking over the reigns from Bubba Wallace, who will be departing to a team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan. In Richard Petty Motorsports’ 12 year history, the team has picked up five wins and 46 top-five finishes in 861 races. However, the team hasn’t won since 2014 when Aric Almirola took the No. 43 to victory lane at Daytona in the Coke Zero 400. In 109 races with Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace picked up nine top-10s and three top-fives.

With the confirmation of Jones to RPM, it leaves just one high-tier ride available in the Cup Series. The No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports remains free, a ride where Jones was originally rumored to be a favorite.

In 2021 and beyond, Erik Jones will look to get The King and the No. 43 back into victory lane for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Is now the right time for a Kyle Larson return?

Kyle Larson has been out of the NASCAR Cup Series since he used a racial slur in an IRacing event in April. Since then, Larson has been racing dirt and rebuilding his image. Everyone knows he was a successful driver. Larson has been to victory lane six times and was the 2019 All-Star Race winner. Along with a 2014 Rookie of the Year, Larson has the best resume of any free agent available. The thing is, is now the right time for Larson to return?

Will He?

Just a few days ago reports emerged that Kyle Larson was spotted meeting with Chevrolet executives in Philadelphia. The consensus is that Larson needs to repair relations with Chevy and NASCAR before he’d be cleared to sign with a team. He has already begun working on it with Chevy and it’s expected if he inks a deal, NASCAR would allow it.

The 28-year-old is one of the highest potential young drivers in the sport, and prior to his obscene language incident, one of the emerging stars of the sport. For a team to take a chance on him based on his previous success and popularity would make complete sense. The only thing that would hold teams back would be his reputation.

Yes, the slur used by Larson wasn’t okay by any means, but the situation fell into the laps of the sports media at a time when sports weren’t on the television. Networks and shows that would typically give very little if any time to a situation like this in the NASCAR world gave it a huge amount of spotlight. Analysts called for NASCAR to move swiftly and they did, getting Larson out of the sport.

Now, you can make the case the sport moved way too quickly on the decision and didn’t wait for things to settle down before re-evaluating Larson. Still, you can see how in a time of such social unrest, his comments as a face of the sport held immense weight.

When Could He Be Back?

Now, a few months later, Larson has had time to reflect and make a change. He’s begun to rebuild his image and now may be the prime time for him to do so. With Hendrick Motorsports looking for a talented and proven driver to fill Jimmie Johnson’s shoes, Larson sticks out amongst the pack. Compared to Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick, and other rumored targets, Kyle Larson is clearly the most talented. Larson is a proven contender in the sport and from a racing perspective is the perfect replacement for a legend.

 Sponsors need to sign on to represent a driver who would stand as a reflection of the companies image. The only reason I could think of for Hendrick not naming a driver yet is that they’re jumping over those hurdles. I personally expect to see Larson be tabbed as the next driver for Hendrick. 

NASCAR “Silly Season” Predictions

With what NASCAR refers to as its “silly season” rapidly approaching, it’s time to make predictions on where the top drivers in the sport will be running in 2021. These are just some of my initial big predictions/thoughts, but things will change rapidly once the 48 machine’s new driver is announced.

Bubba Wallace to Hendrick Motorsports (#88)

Let’s start this one out with a bang; everyone wants to know who will replace Jimmie Johnson? Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick, and Corey Lajoie were all viewed as contenders for this ride, but one guy stood out above the rest, Bubba Wallace. In no way is Bubba more talented than any of those four drivers. He is more marketable, though, and he is currently one of the biggest stars in the sport with his social justice stances. Bubba would bring an influx of sponsorship and notoriety with him to Hendrick, and it would make sense to add him. Though, I think Alex Bowman takes the prestigious 48 because of his success and fit within Hendrick Motorsports, and Bubba takes the ride known for one of the most marketable drivers in the history of the sport.

Erik Jones to Chip Ganassi Racing (#42)

Jones has a chance to lock this ride down rather quickly. Jones has been an inconsistent driver at the top level, but when he is on, he is very competitive. As a former winner and consistent playoff fixture, he fits the bill of what the team looks for in its drivers. Jones could easily be the guy to lock down the 48, but more than likely, he goes to a spot where he can stay competitive and partner up with a legend, Kurt Busch.

Chase Briscoe to Stewart Haas Racing (#14)

Briscoe’s scenario is a tough one. I could see him sticking in Xfinity for another year, but, let’s be honest, he is ready for the cup. Briscoe has been a force to be reckoned with all season and is ready for top-level competition. His racing style is eerily similar to that of Tony Stewart, and that would be poetic for him to pilot his old number. If Briscoe doesn’t land here, watch out for Kyle Larson.

Corey Lajoie to Richard Petty Motorsports (#43)

This ride is similar to the Hendrick scenario. Marketability wins, and that’s evident with Lajoie. Lajoie is a rising star who deserves a shot with better machinery. RPM isn’t a top tier team, but Lajoie could open some eyes and get to learn from the King, so it would be a no brainer for him. As for RPM, Daniel Suarez could be the guy here if Lajoie doesn’t get it.

Clint Bowyer to Fox Sports

This one is something I see truly brewing. Bowyer got to do some more commentary work progressively over the past few seasons. He has been phenomenal. The knowledge he has, combined with the comedic timing he holds, makes him a tour de force in the booth. He and Gordon have great chemistry, and he could slot in with Mike Joy and him to form an entertaining booth for the long term future.

Kyle Larson to Go Fas Racing (#32)

This one is a little strange. Larson seems like a way too talented driver for this ride on the surface, but if you dive into it, it makes sense. With Aric Almirola needing another big year next year to keep the ten car, and potentially openings emerging next year, Larson could take his shot to get back in the sport at a lower-tier team for a year. Go Fas Racing is a partner of Stewart Haas, and maybe this is how Larson can quietly reacclimatize to the sport without controversy and be groomed for a ride at SHR.

NASCAR: Four Turns with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard, Michigan/Road America

NASCAR’s “silly season” just got a whole lot zanier. The Eastern Speed Board covers it all in their latest edition.

The NASCAR offseason’s moves and shake-ups are often referred to as “silly season”. 2020 as a whole could well be described that way, but Joe Gibbs Racing put a particularly impactful twist on the upcoming proceedings.

JGR announced the Thursday that Erik Jones would exit the team’s No. 20 Toyota, which appears set to be filled by Christopher Bell. A former Xfinity Series standout in a Gibbs Toyota, Bell has been working with JGR satellite team Leavine Family Racing in his first full Cup Series campaign. He became available when LFR was sold earlier this week. The team’s No. 95 Toyota will run the remainder of the 2020 season before shutting down operations. This leaves Jones, a two-time Cup Series race winner and 2015 Truck Series champion, without a ride heading into 2021.

Additionally, Brad Keselowski had an incredible week on and off the track. Sunday saw the 2012 Cup Series champion win his third race of the season at New Hampshire Motorspeedway. Less than 24 hours later, it was revealed that former free-agent-to-be Keselowski would continue his endeavors in Team Penske’s No. 2 Ford for at least another year. This removes Keselowski from the No. 48 sweepstakes, as the legendary Jimmie Johnson is prepared to step away from the Hendrick Motorsports vehicle.

What’s the takeaway from everything? ESM’s NASCAR experts on the Eastern Speed Board investigate…

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 1: Big week for Brad Keselowski; thoughts on his new deal?

Geoff Magliocchetti: To quote Newman…the postal employee, not the driver…what took you so long?

Keselowski finishing a Hall of Fame career in Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 always seemed too good to be true. Besides, as cool as it would’ve been to see him finally earn a ride at Hendrick Motorsports, it wouldn’t have felt right. Images of Keselowski in No. 48 gear would’ve been included on the same lists and galleries of Brett Favre in a New York Jets jersey or Teresa Weatherspoon in Los Angeles Sparks colors. It’s rare to see any driver end their career in the same car that began it. Keselowski has been, in another Seinfeld reference, Penske material for all of his full-time Cup career. It’s nice to see that one of NASCAR’s longest-running partnerships will continue. For Keselowski to earn his new deal after a dominant weekend joining Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin as the only three-time winners this season makes it even sweeter.

Dylan Price: I think this was something that made too much sense not to happen. Brad would’ve been a fit in the 48, but he’s been putting up impressive showings in the 2 for Penske. He could ultimately bolt next year if Austin Cindric is ready and he doesn’t want to stay with Penske any longer, but I believe this was a move that made sense for both parties and I’m glad it got done.

Nathan Solomon: I’m happy to see Brad Keselowski signing an extension with Penske. He just seems like the right man for the car and it makes sense to keep him as the driver. He’s obviously been very successful driving the No. 2 car, winning a championship, and a lot of races along the way. I had a lot of trouble seeing anyone but Brad in the car. Congrats to him on the extension, and I bet he will remain at Penske for the rest of his career.

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Turn 2: RIP Leavine Family Racing. How does Christopher Bell’s upcoming sub-in for Erik Jones shake up the “silly season” landscape?

Geoff Magliocchetti: Drastically, and this might only be the beginning.

First off, Leavine Family Racing will be missed. In an era more or less dominated by “superteams”, the group had formed a solid single-car foundation with their No. 95 Toyota. Their evolution from start-and-park squad to respectable racer (particularly with Bell and Matt DiBenedetto behind the wheel over the last two seasons) was nothing short of impressive.

Bell’s departure and the subsequent demise of his No. 95 team alters the landscape for both veterans and newcomers alike. For one thing, if JGR wanted to bring up Harrison Burton, their satellite squad in LFR is no longer there. Ditto, perhaps, if Stewart-Haas Racing wants Chase Briscoe to drive the No. 14. Now pending free agent Clint Bowyer has one less ride to turn to if he wishes to continue his career. Sure, Bell benefits from the get-go, but it could end Jones’ career of contention before it truly begins. Look no further than the case of Daniel Suarez, who went from Xfinity Series champion at Joe Gibbs to racing for the underfunded No. 96 at Gaunt Brothers Racing in just five years.

But that might not be a problem now that Gibbs’ maneuvering has set a new plan into motion. We already have vacant spots at JGR (No. 20 Toyota), Hendrick Motorsports (No. 48 Chevrolet), and Chip Ganassi Racing (No. 42 Chevrolet, currently piloted by fill-in driver Matt Kenseth). Time will tell just how many ripples the bombshell of the Jones/Bell switch made on the Cup Series surface.

Dylan Price: First, I am very disappointed to hear that LFR is shutting down because I felt they had the potential to be the next Furniture Row-esque “come out of nowhere and win it” team.

Christopher Bell being out of a ride truly changes the “silly season” landscape. He’s one of the highest potential young drivers in NASCAR. At this time JGR views Bell as the much stronger option for the No. 20 machine. That has officially put Erik Jones out of a ride, who would make sense in a number of places. He could be a fit with the No. 48. He could also go to Stewart-Haas if a ride opens there. That could then jeopardize the future of either Clint Bowyer or Aric Almirola. So, it’s safe to say that Bell losing his ride and joining Joe Gibbs just changed EVERYTHING.

Nathan Solomon: Christopher Bell wasn’t on the market for very long as, within days of LFR’s announced shut-down, Erik Jones was dumped for him. So now Jones is the free agent looking for a new ride. All the same options I mentioned ion the previous question are still on the table. There’s an opening at Hendrick and an opening at Stewart Haas. Additionally, the No. 42 will be vacant for Chip Ganassi, and that could be another option for Jones. I think a lot in “silly season” now depends on whether Clint Bowyer will get offered an extension for Stewart-Haas.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 3: Keselowski’s return to Penske assured he will NOT take over the No. 48. So the question is…who will?

Geoff Magliocchetti: The favorite right now is probably Jones, but I’m going to throw a curveball here…Noah Gragson.

In some ways, Gragson’s potential ascension to the Cup Series mimics that of Keselowski’s…a talented driver at multiple levels whose aggressive racing style might rub some guys the wrong way (just ask Harrison Burton after the Xfinity Series event at Kentucky this year) but has the potential to impress both Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. while piloting a car for JR Motorsports. Gragson has certainly posted results worthy of a Cup ride. He was the runner-up in 2018’s Truck Series ledger (racing a Toyota owned by Kyle Busch) and has been a premier name on the Xfinity level with wins at Daytona and Bristol this season. A fiery rookie may be the ultimate counter to the mild-mannered, stoic Johnson, but such a contrast would be one of 2021’s most intriguing storylines.

Dylan Price: All signs now point to Erik Jones. who’s now out of a ride. I love Erik as a racer and I think he would fit well within the current trio at Hendrick Motorsports. I think he also is the kind of high potential driver that Rick and Jeff Gordon (who owns part of the 48) would really want within the organization.

With that said, I don’t think he should drive the No. 48 car. I think the car should switch back to No. 5 for Jones. Still, nothing is for certain and a guy like Matt DiBenedetto or Kyle Larson could be a surprise hire.

Nathan Solomon: There are a few options on who could drive the No. 48 next year. Erik Jones is the newest free agent, and with his time at Gibbs, I could see him driving that car. Clint Bowyer is also a free agent, but I don’t really see him driving for Hendrick, especially with his age.

The other option could be to turn to one of the guys at JR Motorsports such as Noah Gragson or Justin Allgaier. There’s also a pair of guys driving for Kaulig Racing in Justin Haley and Ross Chastain who would love an opportunity in a Cup Series car that has a chance to win every week.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Turn 4: NASCAR has instituted some new changes, including new starting lineup and restart policies as we approach the playoffs. Thoughts?

Geoff Magliocchetti: While I disagree with the full-time “choose cone” being instituted at this stage of the season (the start of 2021 would’ve been more optimal), I’m eager to see how it plays out over these crucial final stages of the season. The All-Star Race was a good place to introduce it, but we didn’t get to see it truly go into action, to see a driver pick up several spots by choosing the lesser popular lane. Such a strategy could be the ultimate difference between advancement and elimination in the playoff chases this fall.

As for the lineup, consisting of a weighted system of standings and finishing positions/top speeds from the prior event, it’s great to see some welcome unpredictability added to the opening gride while ensuring that the best cars get the optimal starting position.

Dylan Price: I think it’s the right move. It really makes sense to do in my opinion in terms of adding value to the races. As seen in the All-Star Race, it makes for much more exciting restarts and incites much more competitive racing. To put it in NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller’s own words, the sport “felt it was an important addition to the restart procedure”.

Nathan Solomon: I really enjoyed the choose cone rule used in the All-Star Race, and I’m glad it’s being adapted in most races. It allows the driver to choose where they think is the best for them and their car, not just the traditional way of odd position numbers start inside and even numbers start on the outside, It adds more strategy, and potentially on-the-fly thinking. It will make the racing better and pit road safer, as drivers will be less likely to play games on pit road to jockey for starting positions. Kudos to guys like Austin Dillon who pushed to get this added to NASCAR.

Michigan/Road America Predictions

Race Cup 1 Cup 2 Xfinity Trucks
Geoff Magliocchetti Kevin Harvick Kyle Busch Austin Cindric Austin Hill
Dylan Price Joey Logano Alex Bowman AJ Allmendinger John Hunter Nemechek
Nathan Solomon Brad Keselowski Chase Elliott Daniel Hemric Grant Enfinger
Rank Points (behind) Wins
1. Nathan Solomon 212 1
2. Dylan Price -4 0
3. Geoff Magliocchetti -20 1

NASCAR: Erik Jones impresses on the playoff brink

On the cusp of the NASCAR playoff picture and facing an uncertain future, Erik Jones came up big after facing disaster at Pocono.

Summer often affords the opportunity for sports fans to relax and divert their eyes away from the playoff picture and enjoy the games for what they are during the supposed “dog days”, allowing the insanity to fully reign in September.

But with NASCAR racing serving as the only sport in town, fans will take whatever sort of postseason discussion they can get.

Now is as good a time as any to talk about the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff picture. Against big odds, the series has entered the second half of its 26-race regular season and suddenly only 11 races remain until the postseason begins at Darlington Raceway. Winning more or less assures a driver’s playoff participation, while those who go without must rely on the mercy of points.

Erik Jones, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is currently the 16th and final name on the guest list as the postseason preparty rolls on. After this weekend’s historic Cup Series doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, Jones is up 14 points on Austin Dillon, his closest competitor for the slot. This posting comes after Jones finished a season-best third at the Pocono 350 event on Sunday afternoon.

Jones reflected on his playoff quest during a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom.

I think we’re so much better than (16th) that it doesn’t really even play into my mind I know if we just kind of do what we need to do, things will kind of work out,” Jones said when asked if he or his No. 20 squad looks at the standings at a time like this. “It’s not really even a question in my mind at this point, making the Playoffs or not.  I feel like we’ll be strong enough here to get a win at a race here in the next month or two somewhere.  I don’t think that’s really in my mind.  We just have a good enough car, a good enough team.  We just got to clean some things up, have some things go our way.  I don’t really believe in luck that much.  You keep chugging along, things will go your way eventually.”

All things considered, it’s actually a solid position for Jones to be in. The weekend began with him on the outside looking in, a mere point behind rookie Tyler Reddick for the final spot. Those who crave playoff drama were no doubt intrigued by an incident that befell Jones, as he ironically crashed with Reddick on the 70th of 130 laps during Saturday’s Pocono Organics 325 in partnership with Rodale Institute. While Reddick was able to muster a 30th-place finish running four laps off the pace, Jones’ Toyota was damaged beyond repair, relegating him to 38th.

When Reddick endured mechanical problems at the start of the second part, a 350-mile event on Sunday, he took full advantage.

His Toyota wasn’t fast enough to run with his teammate, race-winner Denny Hamlin, but Jones kept a wave of decent momentum going with a relative bronze medal at the 2.5-mile track’s 2020 finale. It’s his second top-five finish over the last three races, having managed a fifth-place showing after being involved in the topsy-turvy ending at Talladega.

“I think we’ve been pretty fast every week,” he said. “I can’t think of a race other than Martinsville where we didn’t have good speed. It’s unfortunate we haven’t finished as good as we’ve ran at some races. I think that’s going to come around. You can’t have things go wrong every single week.”

“It was a good day today. The Craftsman Camry was pretty quick. It’s good to get a good finish. …I wish we could get some more finishes. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Jones is in his third season of Cup Series racing with Gibbs. He’s looking for a third playoff berth that would match his seasons in the No. 20…one that would certainly come in handy during contract negotiations.

The 2015 NASCAR Camping World (now Gander RT & Outdoor) Truck Series champion is slated to be a free agent at the end of the 2020 season. If Jones hits the market, he could get lost in a crowded picture that might also include former series champion Brad Keselowski, as well as fellow playoff participants Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney. After his second top-five run in the span of a calendar week, Jones expressed confidence that a new deal could be done and he would remain in the No. 20 stable.

We started talking to them about next year, what we’re going to do moving forward,” Jones reported. “I feel like right now that’s kind of the plan, is working with them. We’ll see what happens. But I feel good about it right now moving forward.”

Jones and the Cup Series stars return to action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway next Sunday afternoon for the Big Machine Vodka 400 Powered by Florida Georgia Line (4 p.m. ET, NBC). He owns a runner-up finish at IMS, coming home second to Keselowski in the 2018 event.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags